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A Whimpering Roar: The Old Griffith Park Zoo, Then and Now

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I'll admit it. I am a wimp when it comes to dark, confined spaces. I don't even like to look into uncovered manholes or air vents, and I have never felt a greater sense of fear than when I decided it would be a good idea to go into the catacombs of Paris, alone. I don't enjoy planes, 99-seat theaters, or even the backseat of cars. Give me sunshine, wide open spaces and the freedom to move where I want, when I want. Perhaps this is why I empathize enormously with the enclosed animals I see in zoos, be they in cages or "natural" habitats where glass separates their world from ours.

The Old Zoo at Griffith Park was seemingly designed to send someone like me into a full blown panic. Its remains hug the hillside of a sunny canyon about two miles down Crystal Springs Road from the current Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Built into the hillside are abandoned animal "habitats" or "grottoes" that look like the cheap sets from a high school production of Camelot. Venturing inside I found gated off narrow stairways -- like those in a castle -- covered in vibrant graffiti, and bone dry moats enclosed in a thick layer of grime. Everywhere I could hear the eerie echoes of teenagers who had found their way into the stairwells and fenced off portions of the structures. They hooted and hollered into the otherwise peaceful canyon below.

Following the Old Zoo trail, which zigzags further up the canyon side, I found menacing squat cages and the defaced (sometimes artfully) backside of the grottos, where holes have been cut out of protective fences for explorers to shimmy through. Further up the shaded trail there was an abandoned building attached to some kind of rudimentary display cage. Across the path from this large enclosure were low to the ground cages that look like medieval jail cells for children. They were filled with the refuse of the tagger -- spray paint bottles, beer cans and ciggie stubs. I tried to climb into one of the cages, to get perspective, but some kind of internal chill stopped me. The surrounding twigs and leaves were spray painted light blue, and further up the rocky canyon side someone had tagged the word "weed," with an arrow pointing further up the trail.

Suddenly, a lizard darted out of nowhere and rushed down the trail towards the sunshine of the canyon below. "I'm with you little Lizard," I thought, as I turned around and made my way quickly down the old zoo path, past the little prisons that over a thousand animals were once forced to call home.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

The New Wild Animal Center of the World

How many lions in Los Angeles? One hundred and twenty-four. Tigers? Twenty-eight. Elephants? Sixteen. Leopards? Thirty-six. Alligators? One thousand. Ostriches? Seven hundred.--Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1916 1
The other day President Griffith of the Park Board hurriedly grabbed the telephone and asked the operator to connect him with the Griffith Park Zoo. A moment later the operator's voice came over the wire. "The lion is busy." Now, Mr. Griffith is wondering if he was being kidded or if it just happened that way.--Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1929 2

It was 1907, and Los Angeles already had a zoo problem. The small city zoo at Eastlake Park (now Lincoln Park) featured "accommodations ... so meager ... that all but the finest animals have perished miserably in the cramped cages." 3 The remaining animals were in terrible shape. The deer had tawny skin which hung "like century old parchment paper" and eyes with a look of "devouring pain." The bear pits were simply "cement floor cages a little larger than a piano box". Even the zookeeper admitted that a new zoo was desperately needed. Many city leaders, including the editors at the Los Angeles Times, advocated moving the zoo to Griffith Park:

Griffith Park is an ideal location for a zoological garden; there, most of the animals can live under conditions similar to their native state. Hundreds of acres of rolling land with drags and dens already prepared by nature await the advent of hapless creatures from the marshy, suffocating quarters at Eastlake. 4

By 1911, the Park Commission announced that plans were underway for the establishment of the "world's most natural and unique zoo" on 500 acres in Vermont Canyon (now home to the Greek Theater), in Griffith Park. 5 "Instead of walking up and down in front of cages and iron gratings, the small boy who is fortunate enough to live in Los Angeles, may climb to the top of a hill in Griffith Park and see the elk, deer, camels, elephants, zebras and giraffe grazing among the shrubbery of the canyons below him," bragged the Los Angeles Times. "He may see the bear, not lolling in a smelly pit, but coming and going from their natural caves in rocks." 6

Monkeys at L.A. Zoo, 1964 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Monkeys at L.A. Zoo, 1964 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Tillie and Sugar, llamas at the L.A. Zoo, 1949 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Tillie and Sugar, llamas at the L.A. Zoo, 1949 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

However, funding for this noble dream soon fell apart. Instead, a much smaller, slapdash zoo was constructed from 1912-1914, on the Eastside of the park in a canyon under Bee Rock. Over 100 animals from Eastlake and the private collection of railroad man Frank Murphy were moved into the sorry zoo, which was not in any way complete. According to Griffith Park historian Mike Eberts:

At first many of the animals were put into stockades; welded wire encircling groups of trees. Various livestock, wolves, monkeys, and even some cats were enclosed this way. The bear had a more natural home: they lived in three caves on a steep hillside. In 1914, an aviary, bear pits and assorted cages were built by 1,200 unemployed men ... In 1916, the Park Commission allocated $1,500 to build suitable paddocks for deer, elk, antelope and buffalo. 7

Though the new low-rent city zoo was not much better than the one it replaced, it was free, and was soon fairly popular with sightseeing Angelenos. But it was not the only animal game in town. By 1916, the Griffith Park Zoo was competing with the Bostock Collection, the Barnes Wild Animal Circus, and the much larger Selig Zoo in Lincoln Park, which featured over 700 animals used in Selig Studios' motion pictures. This explosion in animals on display led one writer to note that "since Mr. Noah dropped his gangplank on Ararat and set his strange cargo on dry land, there has probably never been such a family reunion as may be seen in the present time. Within the past two years Los Angeles has become the wild animal center of the world." 8

Movie and entertainment professionals brought many animals with strange tales to all of the zoos, including Griffith Park. There was the baby elephant owned by a vaudeville actor named W. Nicola, who had picked up the baby in Rangoon, India, and paid the zoo 50 cents a day to board the elephant for the winter when he took a trip back East.

Mo, Smo, Andy, and Mandy, penguins at L.A. Zoo, 1949 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Mo, Smo, Andy, and Mandy, penguins at L.A. Zoo, 1949 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Giant Tortoise at L.A. Zoo | Photo: Ralph Morris Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Giant Tortoise at L.A. Zoo | Photo: Ralph Morris Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Perhaps the most popular animal at Griffith Park during the '20s and '30s was Old Topsy, the camel with two broken humps. Topsy was said to have been either descended from or one of the original 33 Middle Eastern camels imported by Jefferson Davis in 1852, to replace pack mules for the U.S. mail service. After the end of the Civil War, Topsy had supposedly hauled ore or salt in Arizona and Nevada before becoming an attraction at Ringling Brothers Circus. During his Ringling Brothers' employment he had been involved in a terrible train wreck that had crushed his humps. After a stint at Fox Studios, he had been given to the zoo. When he died in 1934, the governor of Arizona wrote to the L.A. Park Commission:

Topsy, last of the camels imported into Arizona by the United States Army in 1852, was a real Arizona Pioneer. I am happy that Topsy spent her declining years in comfort at the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles. 9

Topsy had lived his twilight years with a friend almost as ancient, and certainly as interesting as he was. Chief care taker and animal trainer Otto Beyer claimed to have known Topsy when he worked at Ringling Brothers Circus. Then again, old Otto claimed a lot of things. There was the time in 1928 when he wandered into a local hospital with a head laceration, unable to recall anything until he was put under hypnosis, after which he began:

... reciting a story of how he had lain unconscious in a park pathway for ten hours as a result of having been struck on the head by a bandit... Beyer stated that early Saturday evening a young woman drove up to him and inquired direction to the [Griffith] park golf links. He walked a short distance along a narrow path, he said, better to show her the links, and was struck down from behind ... When he regained his sense yesterday morning he reported finding $30 missing from his pockets. 10

And then there was the tale of the turtle fights, which Beyer first learned of when he heard birds screaming in the aviary. In the aviary, he found "scores of turtles":

...pushing and pulling and snapping at one another. They were hissing as they locked their forelegs together and strained at one another as wrestlers do...I could hardly believe my eyes ...The screaming of the birds began to attract the attention of visitors and I knew that it would never do to have my charges fighting in public. I went into the cage and separated them. Joe, the giant macaw, seemed to enjoy the fights and strutted around as if he encouraged them. There was no more fighting that day, but the next day I watched to see what started the trouble. I saw that it lay between battling Bozo the turtle and a big turtle that someone had painted red before he was brought to the zoo... I went back to my house and did not say anything to anybody because they might have thought I had broken my teetotaler pledge I had made many years ago and had been seeing things. I kept the secret about two weeks and ... kept my ears open for any noise from the aviary and at the first sound I would tear over and break up some turtle fights. 11

Otto died in 1933. For its entire existence, Van Griffith and the rest of the Park Commission had been frankly embarrassed by the funny little zoo, and plans for the fabled "Vermont Canyon Zoo" were periodically announced. However, the coming of the Depression would give the park a second wind. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Scores of Civil Workers Association (CWA) workers descended on the park to make improvements. But the zoo's bears were not waiting around for their promised new home. After the great New Year's Flood of 1934, the bears escaped their cage at the zoo. One, a honey bear, bit the hand of a CWA worker who was trying to capture it. It had no interest in going back home.

'Battling Turtles Enliven Zoo' | Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1931
'Battling Turtles Enliven Zoo' | Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1931

WPA Whitewash

Los Angeles invites her neighbors to see THE COLONY OF ANIMAL FOLKS! ... Bizarre, fascinating, are the sights in the zoo at Griffith Park! Here, majestically guarding his mate, stalks a black mane lion-what a handsome specimen he is! With stately mien a herd of elk grazes unaware of visitors ... wallabies, dwarf kangaroos, exhibit their ability as jumpers ... over fifty monkeys perform acrobatics and "show off" to the amusement of onlookers ... zebras, deer, Brahma Sacred Cows of India, antelope, bears, camels, and numerous other strange beasts make up this picturesque animal colony. Chattering for admiration are hundreds of brilliantly plumaged ... talking birds and scores of other striking and beautiful winged creatures! ... Hours on end visitors are enthralled, entertained, amused in the veritable fairyland of nature's own folks! --Ad in the Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1936 12

During the Depression and World War II, Angelenos were looking for happy stories to take their minds off their troubles. There was a huge uptick in visitors to the zoo. There was also an explosion of coverage of zoo animals in local papers, often accompanied by adorable pictures. Here was Queenie the zebra being photographed proudly with her new baby colt Prince! Here was Tommie, the zoo's new elephant, who thrilled visitors by catching tossed apples, bread and peanuts in her mouth. During the war, the headline of a story about a nesting Egyptian goose actually read, "HERE'S A STORY TO TAKE YOUR MIND OFF WAR!" The fluff piece below is typical of zoo coverage during this time:

Throngs which ordinarily during the course of the year visit the zoo ... were sidetracked to the Tournament of Roses ... [The animals] made their displeasure known to their keepers. The keepers got together and decided that the only thing to do was to treat the beasts in the same manner that a manager would treat an obstreperous operatic tenor. One of the zoo attendants called up the Times. "We've got a lot of temperamental animals out here that need attention ... can you send out a reporter and a cameraman to help us make these prima donnas think that we think they're as important as they think they are?" Arriving at the zoo, the reporter and photographer found the animals inclined to be a bit snooty. Prince and Vani, two Gobi desert camels, smugly chewed their cuds, pausing only once to glare viciously at the photographer's wrap around overcoat. One long terrifying roar from Rufus, the Libyan lion, sent two zebras, King and Princess, scurrying into a huddle. As ugly an ostrich as ever hid her head in the sand, preened her taupe feathers and arched her skinny neck hoping that from whichever end the photographer shot the picture, she would be mistaken for a peacock or a swan. Lonesome Jimmy, the kangaroo, who lives at the zoo in tedious celibacy, proved the kibitzer of the lot. He tried to edge into every picture; acted like a player at a premiere. The white fallow deer kept their dignified distance. With hauteur and disdain they watched the other animals... 13

Despite a massive WPA improvement project started in 1936, things continued to be weird at Griffith Park Zoo. In 1937, zoo superintendent Byron C. Gibson was called to the Griffith Observatory after a privately owned monkey somehow broke into the building's attic. Gibson finally lured him to capture with banana bait. There were continuing, disturbing stories. Prince, the baby zebra, was found with a fractured neck after crashing into a fence during a frightening storm. A baby bear suffered a similar fate, while a "sissy" leopard supposedly died of "fright" after injuring his paw. Even the animals' transportation to their new WPA constructed homes in 1939 did not go smoothly. Getting honey bears Elsie and Alice into one of the "seven new grottoes constructed...at a cost of $500,000" 14 was an ordeal:

For more than an hour, Gibson and his assistants pleaded, coaxed and finally squirted cold water on Elsie before she would move out of her old cage to a portable one to be transported to her new home. Elsie's playmate Alice didn't like the idea of moving either. But sugar and raisin bread and a shower bath combined to get her into the portable cage. 15
Camels at L.A. Zoo, ca. 1910-1916 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Camels at L.A. Zoo, ca. 1910-1916 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Elementary school children and teachers at L.A. Zoo entrance, 1958 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Elementary school children and teachers at L.A. Zoo entrance, 1958 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Also, moving Rufus, the 625 pound lion, to his new home was a downright nightmare, which resulted in him spending the night trapped in the grotto's deep moat. The L.A. Times joked:

Here's what Rufus was mad about. 1. When his keeper ... undertook to install Rufus in a brand new rock grotto in place of the heavily barred cage he has occupied for several years, the southland Numa attempted to leap the 21 foot chasm separating him from liberty. His leap was three feet short. Rufus plopped down to the moat. He was mad about that. 2. [His keeper] and his helpers have been trying to get him out by lowering cleated platforms, pieces of meat and sundry other attractions. Rufus would have none of it. 3. Spectators by the thousands have been thronging the vicinity, some proffering utterly impracticable ideas for returning the lion to his grotto, others making cutting remarks about the broad jumping prowess of lions in general... 4. The W.P.A.- Rufus is mad at them. They're the people who built the darned grotto with its 21 foot moat. They were so proud of it they even installed an irritating brass plaque recording the project. Why did they have to waste government money on such an idea, when his old cage was perfectly comfortable? 5. Tillie, his 4 year old mate. Tillie who bowed to progress and went docilely to their new grotto, lay comfortable on a ledge and gazed down at Rufus with an air which seemed to indicate a low opinion of his jumping prowess and his mental equipment. At times she even heartlessly dozed. Park superintendent Gibson late in the day was bearing the situation with Christian resignation. He listened politely to a host of suggestions, bore a few razzes from critical tax payers and pitying smiles from tourists hailing from cities which have lions and know how to handle 'em. 16

But the new facilities were inadequate to hold the over 1000 animals the zoo had acquired. By 1949, chief animal keeper Charles Allen was calling for a bigger zoo. It was so cramped, he was "fearful his kangaroos, wallabies and antelopes" would forget, "for lack of space to practice, how to take a respectable leap." 17

The Blame Game

"A mess. Perhaps the worst zoo for any city of 100,000 population or (more)."--Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman, 1954 18

Things came to a head in the 1950s. Charges of "shameful neglect and mistreatment of animals," factional rivalry among zoo employees, and a series of council hearings and government reports became an ongoing local story. Many believed that the mess was manipulated and made worse by Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman and the non-profit organization "Friends of the Zoo," who wanted to build a new "Super Zoo" in Elysian Park. Fighting among zoo employees became so bad that one keeper resigned after asserting that his co-workers had sabotaged his car three times by pouring sugar in his gas tank. Charges of penguins being suffocated by chlorine fumes and monkeys being beaten by clubs were levelled at various employees. It is fitting that the zoo's most famous animal in its last days was a polar bear named Ivan the Terrible, who brutally killed three other polar bears. The L.A. Times described one deadly fight between Ivan and his victim Bourneven:

The two huge white bears battled savagely for nearly 80 minutes before several tranquilizing hypodermic needles-fired from a gun 50 feet across the grotto's moat- were shot into Ivan's lumbering bulk to take the fight out of him. High pressure water hoses also were used to break up the battle. Police stood by with tear gas grenades. 19

In the end, the new "World Zoo" was built two miles down the road in Griffith Park. In 1966, over 2000 animals were moved from the old zoo to their shiny new home. Parts of the old zoo were dismantled, but some parts still stand. They are moving reminders that sometimes humans just don't know best.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares